I want you to try an exercise with me. Really. Get out a piece of paper.
- Begin to list everything or every “title” that defines you. For example, “wife/husband to_______,” “parent of _______,” “engineer” or “doctor” or “teacher,” “Christian” or “Muslim” or “atheist,” “volleyball/football/soccer player,” and the list goes on. Or maybe some particular event in your past or something you’re looking forward to in your future defines you. Any or all of these things may be key pieces to your identity.
- Now, can you rank them? Which of these titles is more central or key to your identity? Which do you try on for a couple days like a hat and then get rid of?
- Finally, try to give each a percentage. If I met you today and wanted to get to know the real you, how vital is this piece of information? Sure, I can find out your name, but maybe the fact that you’re going to be the world’s next Top Chef is vital to who you are and how you perceive yourself today. So try to assign percentages to each of these characteristics, remembering that you can’t go above 100%. 😛
This is a challenging exercise–and I have yet to do it successfully myself!–but it certainly gets you thinking, doesn’t it? As I newly married woman, I can’t figure out if being “Jared’s wife” makes up 20% or 40% of my identity, or somewhere in between. How much of my identity do I give to “stay-at-home wife” versus “part-time Dream Center pastor”? Do I identify more as a cook or the person in charge of our family finances? And honestly, many of these roles fluctuate in importance from day to day!
Of all the things that define me today, there is one thing from my past that will forever define me. No longer is the full 100% of my identity malleable to whatever new opportunities or relationships present themselves. And I’m wondering if you have something like this in your life, too…
A Defining Moment
Just over 7 years ago, when I was 25, my mom passed away from recurrent ovarian cancer. She’d been battling it for 8 1/2 years total, and it finally got the best of her. It was a long, hard struggle, and the end was particularly difficult for our whole family. At the time I had no idea how difficult it could be to lose someone you love, or how rough the next few years of my life would be as I learned to live for the first time in a world without my mom.
“Time Heals All Wounds”
It has been said that “time heals all wounds.” While this could certainly be debated, I don’t want to focus here on the healing of the pain. Rather, what I have been struck by recently is the issue of identity.
How Do I Define Myself?
Immediately after my mom died, I moved 2,000 miles across country to go to graduate school in Kentucky. At that point, in a new environment and less than a month after my mom died, I defined myself as “the girl who just lost her mom.” If you didn’t know my mom had just died, you might as well not know my name. If I were to give it a percentage, my mom’s death probably made up 90% of my identity.
But time has lessened this. Each year–even each month at the beginning–the percentage of my identity wrapped up in my mom’s death decreased. Today if you asked me to define myself, most days I wouldn’t give this piece of myself more than 5%. But it’s still there. From here on out, it will always be there.
It Never Goes Away…
I guess what I’m learning these days is that when something has been such a big part of your identity for so long (including being “the daughter of Judy” for my whole life), it never fully goes away. In this season of my life–living in a new place, working at a new church, and figuring out how to be married–for whatever reason, the longing to identify myself as “the girl whose mom died” is creeping up again. Not as a cry for attention. It’s really a cry to be known. With so many new people around me all the time, I long to be known for who I really am–and pleasant or not, my mom’s death has had a profound impact on my life.
What Defines You?
Some of you reading are friends of mine who have walked this journey with me and know this piece of my story. Others of you are coming to this blog and I’m merely words on a page and a face in a few touched-up photos. Whoever you are, I hope today you will think about your story. Think about those things that have comprised your identity along the way. Do any of them still make up some piece of you? What things are defining you that are currently a part of your life?
We all need to be known for who we truly are. Maybe today, like I did a few days ago, you need to find someone to share some part of your story with. Maybe it’s a piece you haven’t shared in years because it’s so far back it hardly seems relevant. Perhaps it’s something you’ve never shared with anyone because it was too scary or vulnerable. Today, let’s strive to be known by and to know someone else. As we share our stories, we may find that we allow someone else to open up too. Being real is a beautiful gift we can give each other.